Tag: India

The “Republic of India” in Europe

December 30th, 2015 — 9:20am

Amit’s note: After a four year absence, I am back writing. As a Professor of Leadership and Strategy at IMD, I will off and on produce articles for publication that IMD calls “Tomorrow’s Challenge.” Often, these articles are shortened for publication by the media outlets that publish them. I will, on a case-by-case basis, post either the original version or the published version. For example, a shorter version of the following post appeared in 10 media outlets (that I know of) from Finland to Hong Kong during October and November 2015. I will, of course also occasionally post opinions that don’t fit the criteria for Tomorrow’s Challenge. Let me know what you think.

The EU is wrestling with seemingly insoluble human and financial crises. Pundits routinely draw (unfavorable) parallels to the US to illustrate needed changes. A mechanism to move resources to areas where needed. A central bank with powers to set monetary policy and regulate all major financial institutions. Greater political integration. They note that with a debt of $72 billion that it cannot pay because of a decimated economy, Puerto Rico faces a crisis similar to Greece’s. Yet, financial markets have not panicked, assuming America’s fiscal, monetary, political and judicial mechanisms will enable a soft landing for this US Territory.

This technocratic prescription, though valid, doesn’t address the EU’s real problem: The EU is similar not to today’s US, but to the US of 1776 – 1789. After winning independence, the US states functioned as “these United States” only in name. Each focused only on its own needs and foreswore responsibility for the immense war debt. After 13 years of chaos, the Second Continental Congress adopted the US constitution and installed George Washington as the first President. The EU is in its “thirteen years” now, in need of its own reform. However, despite the present crises, the situation still isn’t bad enough to force fundamental change.

Progress before the situation gets “bad enough” will require learning from India. This will be challenging; no European I know thinks an emerging economy where corruption is rife can teach the EU much. They are wrong. The EU’s challenge isn’t creating a “US of Europe,” but a “Republic of India” in Europe:

• The EU must unify very diverse peoples. In 1947, India integrated over 600 independent and semi-independent kingdoms and the erstwhile British India, and over a few years, consolidated them into language-based states. (There are 29 today.)
• The EU has 24 official languages, and so does India (including English). Westerners are dismissive when I claim to speak two Indian languages. But the people who speak these languages – as different as English and Polish –live as far apart as London and Warsaw. Half of India can’t even recognize the other half’s alphabets. So, educated people use English to communicate.
• Like Europeans, Indians swear by the cultures and food of their states. Only a tiny minority eats regularly what Westerners call “Indian cuisine.”
• Europe is less religiously diverse than India. India has more Christians than all but five EU countries, and more Muslims than all but two countries worldwide. The Hindus are also diverse; for example, the rituals of the two areas whose languages I speak differ considerably.
• As in the EU, people in India (still) harbor false beliefs that people in some states are industrious while those in others are not.

The EU’s efforts at managing diversity have been a near complete failure. Its politicians haven’t made a clear and consistent case why diverse peoples should come together. The absence of an emotion-laden “I am loyal to the EU because …” rationale for unity has produced today’s “What’s in it for me?” ruptures along national and linguistic lines, and the alienation of European Muslims.

EU politicians don’t understand a basic truth we teach in Leadership and Change Management courses: when people rally around a shared vision, driving change becomes easier. Why does the EU exist? Surely not to prevent a German initiated World War III? That rationale became irrelevant decades ago. Politicians – like Jean-Claude Juncker – who ardently champion the EU, offer technocratic rationales, not ones that ordinary people can feel in their guts.

In contrast, India’s efforts at forging a common identity – the concept of “India” had not existed in the prior 4,500 years – have been a substantial success. Indian politicians got a lot wrong, but this they got right. They adopted a national anthem that lauded, by name, every part of the country. They adopted a flag with colors associated with the three major religions. They made political decisions that made no logical or economic sense, but helped manage diversity. They drummed the message of “Unity in Diversity” into every child’s head.

And despite India’s periodic, ugly, politics-driven religious killings, they championed religious diversity. Four of India’s 12 presidents were Muslims, as were 4 of India’s 42 Chief Justices, many senior bureaucrats and ministers, and the senior-most leaders of its armed forces. Forbes lists Indian Muslim billionaires, and India worships the many Muslims in its movies, cricket team, and the arts. EU leaders should ponder why so many British Muslims have joined ISIS while few (if any) Indian Muslims have, even though Britain’s Muslim population is 1.6% of India’s.

I first made my case for “The Republic of India in Europe” in 1989 at a dinner with the executives of a Flemish-Belgian multinational. Europeans must learn, I said, that sometimes a major investment must be made in a particular region not because it makes sense, but because “it’s their turn.” An executive whom I respected retorted, “I don’t care, as long as it isn’t in any French area!” The others laughed.

In the early 1990s, as a professor at INSEAD, the “European Institute of Business Administration,” I observed French companies recruiting only French students, German companies only Germans, British companies only British and so on. On a visit in 2005, I heard former colleagues ruefully note that the situation hadn’t improved very much. Hopefully, for Europe’s sake, it is a lot better now.

I had hoped that the EU policy that required teaching children two non-native languages would help Europeans appreciate their diversity. On the plus side, a 2012 European Commission report noted that 73% of young students were learning English, while German and French were common as second languages. However, the time individual countries devote to languages varies sharply. The UK lacks a specific time commitment and unsurprisingly, while living recently in a well-off London neighborhood, I only heard children speak English. Spain devotes only 5% time at primary levels and 10% in secondary levels. Again unsurprisingly, during my recent visit to five Spanish cities, I met very few young people who admitted to speaking English. A waiter who spoke good English bemoaned the quality of his daughter’s English education.

People can drive change themselves, but they must want to – and it takes much longer. In India of the 1970s, my fellow students and I ridiculed the efforts of a language institute, modeled on the Académie Française, that coined long-winded Hindi equivalents of simple English: “railway signal” became “lahu-puth-gameni-awat-jawat-soochak-danda.” Though today’s BJP government is trying to reintroduce similar silly ideas, DJs and program hosts on Indian TV and radio tend to speak smooth amalgamations of the local language with English (e.g., “Hinglish” combines Hindi and English). So, even illiterate people learn – and use! – English words, facilitating interactions. Unity in diversity, writ small.

Virtually every European leader is running away from the richness of European culture. Instead of unifying people, they are perversely pushing them apart. Wolfgang Schäuble mused that Greece should temporarily leave the Euro zone. David Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership unless the EU acceded to British demands. Greece is flirting with Russia. Viktor Orban wants the EU refugee/migrant policy to ensure that Europe remains Christian. This depressing list is unending. Disunity in diversity, writ large.

(It’s worth noting that today’s EU refugees are a fraction of the roughly 10 million Muslim refugees that India hosted during the 1971 bloodbath that birthed Bangladesh. That India, unlike the EU, was dirt-poor.)

The EU will stop lurching from crisis to crisis only if its leaders ensure it stands for something that makes people proud. They must set an extraordinary, but human, vision for the EU no European country can fulfill on its own. They must learn to give something up first, in order to get something in return. They have to champion policies and ideas that might have limited value for their own countrymen – and indeed, may be to their detriment in the short run – but are essential for the EU’s longer term success.

David Cameron, Angela Merkel, and Francoise Holland have not shown they are up to the challenge. What are they willing to give up? What policies will they promote that aren’t in their own countries’ best interests? However, I know in my gut that some other Europeans are. After all, ordinary Europeans created Médecins Sans Frontières, and instead of staying in the comfort of their rich homelands, at great risk to themselves, they regularly take light and hope to the darkest corners of the world. Surely others can see the value in ensuring the EU embraces European diversity?

Comment » | Politics

The Joys and Perils of Dancing on a Knife’s Edge

February 25th, 2011 — 11:09am

The tumultuous crowds that brought down a dictator in Egypt had an unintended impact far from their homeland: they drowned out – rightfully! – the announcement of a strategic partnership between Nokia and Microsoft. I admire the Nokia I researched; yet I acknowledge it is currently in deep trouble. I have long disdained Microsoft for its product quality and its reliance on monopolistic power instead of innovation (sole exceptions: Xbox and Kinect; and yes, I admit that Office 2011 for the Mac is far better than iWorks!). So, what do I think of this alliance?

A key “prerequisite” question is: Do I still believe the ideas in The Spider’s Strategy? Absolutely! Toyota’s “unexpected acceleration” fiasco and its resultant recalls of millions of cars didn’t discredit Lean Enterprise. Why then, should Nokia’s recent challenges discredit Networked Organizations? Indeed, Nokia got into trouble because in the key area of product innovation, it stopped applying the ideas that powered its 17% compounded annual organic growth rate (in revenues and operating profits) from 1995 to 2006.

Nokia violated a subtle rule embedded in my third Design Principle, “Value and nurture organizational learning.” It used to learn rapidly by setting seemingly impossible targets that demanded the periodic reinvention its business model. Simultanneouly, to keep control, it insisted its managers follow a “no surprises” policy. This brilliant rule is the proverbial knife’s edge. Balance well, and you can pull off miracles. Tilt toward “big risk” and you can lose your shirt. Tilt toward “no suprises” and you will bring innovation to a screeching halt. As it grew, Nokia made the mistake many other large companies have: it tilted toward “no surprises.” So, unlike Apple, it didn’t build a network of complementary product makers to buttress its proprietary Symbian software. Unlike Google, it didn’t attract a different type of sustaining network by making Symbian open source – until it was too late.

The alliance with Microsoft was in the cards from the day Nokia’s Board appointed Stephen Elop CEO. Nokia’s press release spoke of a strategy to “build a new global mobile ecosystem” with Windows Phone software at its core; “capture volume and value growth to connect ‘the next billion’ to the Internet in developing growth markets;” and make “focused investments in next-generation disruptive technologies.”

The second element – a continued focus on markets like India and China – is an key, though the notoriously developed-world-focused financial analysts may not care. Apple has ignored these markets and Windows still has a true monopoly among operating systems. These facts, plus Nokia’s still dominant marketshare there, give the alliance a strong base on which it can build; Nokia can instantly create volume for the Windows Phone and a seemless integration with Wintel computers may give it an edge over low cost Chinese phone makers. At the very least, this element will buy the alliance time; at best, the “next billion” is a huge market. That’s where the first element is also critical.

To bring the alliance value, the goal of building a mobile ecosystem must truly assimilate the lesson of a recent The New York Times story about a start-up company that hoped to build a business around enabling group dates. The founders noted that the site’s users were mostly South or East Asians, but filed that fact away as “Interesting, but Unimportant.” Success came only when they reluctantly acknowledged that group dating wouldn’t fly in the US and shifted their focus to India. The world, as Thomas Freidman said, is flat. But that doesn’t mean people’s needs are the same everywhere. That’s why the word “global” in the language of this strategic element is troubling. Its use may seduce financial analysts, but unless an ecosystem to specific markets, it won’t amount to a hill of beans. At one time Nokia knew this lesson; it had had anthropologists in Indian villages whose work strengthened its market position there. Does it still remember that lesson and can it convince a monopoly to learn it too?

The third element is critical for the long term and most troubling: Will two companies who haven’t created any disruptive technology recently be able to do so in the near future? Nokia’s Chairman Jorma Ollila had championed the Networked Organization philosophy and as CEO, had managed its phenomenal growth. I could make a cogent case that he and the Board had no choice but to create the alliance with Microsoft. (Which would explain why they pursued Mr. Elop in the first place.) Now, he must ensure that Mr. Elop realizes that his most critical tasks are (1) putting into leadership positions those within Nokia who are still capable of dancing gracefully on a knife’s edge and (2) using his deep knowledge of Microsoft to convince Mr. Ballmer to do the same. Then, and only then, will the alliance succeed. If so, I may one day become once again an enthusiastic customer of both companies.

Comment » | Business Environment, Company Performance, Corporate Culture, Leadership

“Oh, You Spoke the Culture and She Spoke the Language”

October 6th, 2010 — 11:07am

The quintessential Indian term, “License Raj” pejoratively describes environments where governmental approval – administered by imperious bureaucrats – is essential for day-to-day activities of people and businesses. I used the term at a recent meeting I attended to describe my sojourn (1992—1994) in France. (Incidentally, none of this is a commentary on today’s France and India.)

French state run utilities regularly sent notices that said, “We will come on X day at Y time to read your meter. If you are not at home, we will levy a 50 Franc charge. If you need to change this appointment, you must also pay a 50 Franc charge.” My wife (India-born, but US-bred) spoke French well, but found such demands incomprehensible. I didn’t speak French, but having grown up in India, readily understood them. Ultimately, she found France more challenging than I did.

While several people laughed at my story, one observed, “Oh, you spoke the culture and she spoke the language!” The depth of this casual statement, spoken in jest, stayed with me.

Many scholars and adults believe that learning someone else’s language allows us to understand how he/she thinks. So, premier universities had – and still have – language requirements for undergraduates. Years ago, the European Union, against significant opposition, passed laws requiring children to learn languages that where not their own national languages. When the best of our companies open offices in countries far from home, they populate these offices with people who have more than a nodding acquaintance with the host country’s language.

Indeed, when the Disney company opened EuroDisney outside Paris (while I was living there), it hired bilingual – often fluently so – people. Yet, EuroDisney was an unmitigated disaster at its opening; I took my toddler there and swore I would never return. The Park turned around only when Disney acquiesced to a European – French – management takeover.

So, the knowledge of a language, however proficient, may not necessarily translate into an understanding of the associated culture. Conversely, the understanding of a culture, may not necessarily require fluency in the language. In the language of mathematicians, neither is necessary nor sufficient.

As we create ever more complex – networked – organizations that span the globe, we must understand this issue in greater depth than we do. How do you think businesses should deal with this culture-language issue?

Comment » | Business Environment

A Tale of Two Indias

October 21st, 2009 — 2:03pm

Earlier this month, I finished a fifteen day trip to India. I formally met executives at two of the country’s largest business groups, and several others in social settings. A journalist posed a question that set me thinking about how business had changed since I lived and worked there.

In 1984, I returned to India after finishing my MBA and spending 13 months in the US as a management trainee at American Express Bank. In other posts, I’ve mentioned my experiences as a trainee creating policy papers for the AEB Board. My return quickly cut me down to size.

My 13 months in New York hadn’t taught me the basics of banking. For example, the lesson I was taught about “Letters of Credit,” the grease of the wheels of international trade, was: reject any “Bill of Lading” that differed from its LC, no matter how small the discrepancy. This categorical rule was meant to protect the Bank if contract disputes emerged between the buyer and seller of the goods covered by the LC and BL. But in India, 100% of the BLs had multiple differences from their LCs. Rejecting them all would shut down the Bank. My India-trained colleagues handled these decisions effortlessly, whereas I, supposedly a “high potential” junior manager, couldn’t without help. (Incidentally, the (rare) managers from the Sub-Continent who got posted abroad, often received multiple, quick promotions to the levels they would have normally achieved had their careers unfolded in the West.)

I also learnt there were many things we could not do, even if they made good business sense. Often, my colleagues (and even my boss) signed off on some transactions with indecipherable squiggles. Moreover, when they had to approve certain types of transactions (e.g., giving a valued client a better deal on its foreign exchange transaction than was allowed by India’s central bank), they almost always had to make client calls; in those cases I signed for them. Ultimately, I realized that these transactions violated arcane Indian laws; when these were minor, the officers squiggled; when they were non-trivial, I became a convenient fall guy.

Today, the situation is very different. Many arcane rules have been repealed; one does not need to break the law every day in order to do one’s job. A palpable degree of confidence radiates from business executives about the prospects of their own firms in particular, and the economy in general. In the 1980s, virtually nothing I had studied in my MBA was applicable in India. Today, many companies are brilliantly run – and could teach a lot to the rest of the world.

The country’s liberalization and rapid growth has, however, produced one downside: A top executive I met bemoaned the fact that the country was teeming with MBAs who wanted to be Managing Directors immediately, without putting in sufficient time to learn their profession. (And I could sympathize with this viewpoint. I watched an interview of a newly appointed, very young, CEO on a TV business channel. The interviewer fawned over him in a manner typically reserved for film stars and cricket players. Which young person wouldn’t want such treatment?) The fact that virtually none of the many business schools that have sprung up all over the country require work experience for admission exacerbates this problem; selections are done mostly based on the Indian equivalent of the GMAT and/or the candidate’s academic record. The desire of the young MBAs clashes with the realities of corporate life and is producing a serious problem: Indian executives estimate that 20% – 40% of their professional staff change employers each year.

Corporate leaders must address this challenge, even if these numbers are a wild exaggeration. I suspect that they will have to take a good hard look at their human resource policies to craft a uniquely “modern Indian” solution. A key part aspect must be the strengthening of company-specific management training; such an investment will convince seasoned managers that the company is truly interested in their professional wellbeing. Until Enron went down in flames, Tom Peters and others were preaching that every manager should adopt a “Me Incorporated” mindset; this doctrine is still prevalent on today’s Wall Street. In India, the most visible example of this mindset is the bitter fued between the two Ambani brothers, each a billionaire many times over. In a networked world, the rest of Indian industry simply cannot afford to fall into the same trap.

A model of what is needed already exists in India and I was privileged to visit it: The Tata Management Training Center in Pune is one of the oldest corporate universities in the world. It is using everything from in-class programs for senior executives to eLearning tools to meet the needs of managers at all levels. Some courses last for a few days, while others are delivered “Executive MBA” style over several months. Chetan Tolia, its Managing Director, told me that some 5,000 managers walk through TMTC’s gates each year. If other major business houses emulated the Tatas in this regard, India could develop a truly formidable competitive advantage.

The million dollar question is: Will they? The ten million dollar question is: What impact will this have on developed economies?

1 comment » | Business Environment, Corporate Culture, executive education, MBA education

The Roadblock to India’s “Tryst with Destiny,” Part 2 of 2

May 18th, 2009 — 5:36pm

I held off on completing this post – a direct follow-on to my last one – until the Indian elections ended. The 700 million strong electorate returned to power the current Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, with a stronger plurality of votes than anyone has obtained in a long time. This means India should have a stable, reformist government for the next few years, led by a technocrat with integrity.

One reform that won’t be on Dr. Singh’s radar is the dismantling of the “Iron Triangle.” It won’t be because it is important, but in the face of many, many other issues, not urgent. Yet, it is this Iron Triangle which keeps more people like Dr. Singh from wielding power and driving change that will benefit the country at large.

The “pervasive mindset effect” of the Iron Triangle initiates this problem. I had just completed my eight standard (grade) when my father called me back from the playground. Did I want to be an engineer or a doctor? I chose the former to avoid dissecting cockroaches (an 8th grade requirement). My friends, all good students, had similar conversations. Only one smart kid among the 220 boys in my class opted out of the sciences; today he is a well known Indian author and journalist. Years later, at the premier Birla Institute of Technology and Science, a computer took on my father’s role: it directed students with high Grade Point Averages to engineering or science, those with moderate GPAs into management; and those with low GPAs into English or economics.

Mahatma Gandhi decision to involve college students in India’s freedom struggle reinforces the problem. Unlike the “Young Republicans” or “Young Democrats” chapters on US campuses, Indian National Congress-affiliated students took to the streets, demonstrated, and went to prison. After independence, every political party set up student chapters and extended their battles into campuses. Students who aspired to be scientists, doctors and engineers typically did not join; they had too much work. But those who cared little for an education did so. They organized strikes that shut down the universities regularly. Because strikes showed a person’s ability to organize people, these people were welcomed by the political parties.

The rigidity of the educational system exacerbates the problem. For example, the famed Indian Institutes of Technology do not admit anyone older than 25 for their bachelor’s programs. The premier Indian Institutes of Management do not (they used to in my youth), but their heavy focus on academic qualifications assures that most entrants lack significant real world experience. Few mid-career Indian professionals can emulate US General David Patraeus, who took a leave of absence to do a Ph.D. at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government; his thesis on successful fighting of insurgencies (seemingly!) helped turn the tide in Iraq. Multitudes of such ridiculous restrictions create a system which pigeon-holes people in professions which do not interest them and for which they have little aptitude or passion.

The consequences of this Iron Triangle are the range of problems other observers blame for holding India back. The best of the best in my generation left the country; the best of the best in today’s generation by and large, eschew the difficult and essential task of nation-building. In the US, some successful executives move – at least for a few years – into senior government positions; though this practice is not without its problems, these pale into insignificance when compared opportunities lost because of the lack of such movements in India. Sure, half a dozen people have made such jumps and have helped the country, but they are exceptions, not the rule.

A reformist government would reform higher education in order to demolish the Iron Triangle. Reducing rigidity will be simplest, though it will require vision. For example, the curriculum at IIT Madras trains students more rigorously in engineering than MIT or CalTech do, but gives them little chance to learn about life – or ironically, how society affects technology. Will someone replace a few science and engineering courses with music, art and poetry?

Changing the science-focused mindset will be harder and require even greater vision. In the 1970s, it made sense for my father to limit my choices. Today India needs to make the Liberal Arts an area of study that will attract the best and the brightest. (Good news: IIT-M has recently begun an Arts program.) It must create Schools of Law on the model of the IITs, IIMs and the premier private universities (like BITS).

De-politicizing the universities will be hardest, but essential. The government might have to figure out how to ban political activity (as opposed to studying political science) on campuses. This recommendation is greatly at odds with my liberal view of life, but how else can India stop the least deserving from becoming the most powerful?

The good news is that Indians are stepping up to the plate. Infosys Co-Chairman Nadan Nilekani recently publicly asked the new government to reform education. Two successful business people – ABN AMRO Bank CEO Meera Sanyal and an IIM-Ahmedabad graduate and entrepreneur Sarath Babu – were candidates in the recent election. All three’s views of what needs changing may differ sharply from mine, but that’s immaterial. What is material is that people to whom education mattered are turning their attention to the body politic. If you don’t think their efforts are important, simply consider this: how long would India’s recent rapid growth as a business powerhouse last if an ill-educated politician successfully managed to eliminate English from its premier universities?

3 comments » | Business Environment, Politics

The Roadblock to India’s “Tryst with Destiny,” Part 1 of 2

May 8th, 2009 — 2:02pm

Last week, I was at the Judge Business School of Cambridge University. This year, Cambridge is celebrating its 800th anniversary. It is astounding that an institution not tightly bound by religion has thrived this long, much of that time as a leading center of human thought. There is hope for humanity yet!

I took the time to chat with Navi Radjou, a former colleague at Forrester, and the first Executive Director of the Center for India and Global Business. Recently created in part with a grant from the Indian Government, the Center pays homage to Jawahar Lal Nehru, an architect of Indian freedom and its first Prime Minister; Nehru had studied at Cambridge in his youth. On a recent trip to India on behalf of the Center, Navi met business people, politicians, film makers and ordinary people. He described fascinating examples of business and social innovation, some of which truly have the power to change the flow of life even in other parts of the world. I will not steal the Center’s thunder and describe any of these here; suffice it to say that this Fall, PBS will be airing a series of documentaries on some of these innovations (created by filmmaker Khursheed Khurody) and the Center will do some supporting work on the series.

With all the good happening there, it might seem churlish to some for me to keep the promise I made in my last post and bring up India’s Achilles Heel. But the country must address this and soon. So, I will go on.

India’s Achilles Heel is not the limits to the numbers of engineering students it can train; while the world focuses on the Indian Institutes of Technology, most engineers trained by its many of the regional engineering colleges (e.g., Delhi College of Engineering) are highly skilled. It is not lack of basic essential infrastructure, which, without doubt, is way behind world class. It is not grinding poverty, accentuated by the still pervasive effects of caste, though that is terrible to behold. (Incidentally, caste is not just a Hindu problem; sadly, Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims – as well as adherents of several other religions – also espouse their caste status in issues of importance, like marriage.) It is not religious or caste battles; these, though ugly when they happen, are not as common as the Western press makes them out to be. It is not even the fact that some 20% of the current Members of Parliament have criminal records or outstanding criminal charges against them; this fact has received widespread coverage in the West now that 700+ million Indians are voting.

I could go on with this list of issues, which have all been raised by various observers of India, some friendly to the country, and some not. In reality, all these issues – and others like them – are derivatives of the core problem, which no one I know of has described. It is a self-reinforcing Iron Triangle made up of (1) a pervasive mindset that believes that smart people should – and must – study engineering or medicine; (2) a still rigid academic system that does not give most people second chances; and (3) Mahatma Gandhi’s greatest error: the politicizing of universities.

Demolishing this Iron Triangle is India’s biggest challenge; if it does so successfully, it will flourish and achieve what Prime Minister Nehru called its “tryst with destiny.” If does not, it will probably still be successful, but is likely to plateau at a level far below its potential.

In my next post, I will describe each of the legs of the Iron Triangle and how they interact. I will also offer some thoughts about what India could do.

1 comment » | Business Environment, Politics

Lingua Franca of the Universe?

April 17th, 2009 — 9:30am

Greetings from Hong Kong (where I started writing this post) and Barcelona (where I am currently)! In Hong Kong, I was teaching in an executive program for a very well thought-off global company. The participants, mid-level executives of the company, are from multiple countries across the Eastern half of Australasia, though the bulk were of Chinese heritage and indeed, from China.

The hotel was grand and overlooked Hong Kong Island and harbor; the views were breathtakingly beautiful. The program I teach for this company is always held here and so, the staff that host us know me well. On a prior trip, I had asked how the handover of Hong Kong to China had affected the area’s residents. One of the staff had volunteered that young people were no longer learning English as avidly as they used to.

This time, a letter to the editor in a local English newspaper caught my eye. The writer was arguing that since Hong Kong’s kids would have to deal with Mandarin in everything from official communiqués to advertisements, schools should teach Chinese, not English. Interestingly, the writer’s name indicated that she was of Indian heritage.

Subsequently, I had dinner with a young woman, a manager at my host company. She confirmed with evident dismay that both schools and parents of students were deemphasizing English education. Moreover, the new focus was not even on the more widely spoken Mandarin, but – reflecting the cultural heritage of the region – Cantonese dialect.

The attitude towards English was affecting even her company. Managers in mainland China were increasingly asking that training programs be translated and delivered in Mandarin, despite the company’s success in improving its staff’s mastery of English. They argued that junior managers and staff did not need English to sell to the vast Chinese market. The argument that lack of English would keep the local staff from achieving senior regional and corporate positions and sooner or later, the mere recognition of this inviolable ceiling would cause the best and the brightest to quit, did not change any minds.

Ever since I first encountered this self-imposed linguistic ghetto building, I have wondered about the medium and long term impact on Hong Kong’s economy. Where would fresh English speaking people come from to run its vast financial markets? What impact would the almost inevitable shortage do to Hong Kong’s position as a center of global trade? My dinner companion said that people who aspired to such jobs usually did all they could to get some education abroad, but this is far from an ideal solution.

Hong Kong is not alone. Barcelona is in the Catalan region of Spain and many Catalans do not consider themselves Spanish. Their language, I’m told, can be loosely described as midway between Spanish and French. Catalan is required of every school student and Spanish is viewed with some disdain. Moreover, I’ve heard stories of foreign students coming to study in Barcelona’s universities, and leaving when they realize that their fluency in Spanish won’t count for much in their education. And this is despite the fact that this beautiful city is trying to establish itself as a commercial destination!

Long ago, I used to tell clients that India’s ultimate advantage on the world stage was not its technically educated people, but the fact that that educated Indians learn to speak English virtually as a first language. We may speak it with funny accents, I’d say, but make no mistake, we do speak it well and many Indians even “think in English.” This fact, I used to say, will give India at least a generation’s worth of advantage over countries where English is learnt reluctantly and used only when the local language just will not do. My recent experiences suggest that the advantage may be even greater. (In a future post, I will discuss India’s Achilles Heel — and no, it is not its still weak infrastructure or the poverty in the villages and slums.)

I have nothing against anyone who is proud, genuinely proud, of his or her own language. In addition to English, I speak two other languages, and in fact, use one of these fairly extensively at home. But like it or not, if we ever make contact with aliens from some other part of the universe, in addition to using math and music, we will be communicating with them in English (and their dominant language). In a global world, it would be nice if our politicians, our academics and even ordinary citizens, recognized this fact.

Comment » | Business Environment

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